I, Rigoberta Menchu


I, Rigoberta Menchu (1983), is the personal narrative of the life of a young Guatemalan Quiche Indian woman. Written in the genre of testimonio, Menchu's powerful voice records the plight of the Guatemalan people during the political terror of a 36-year Civil War that ended in 1996. To survive, the people of Menchu's community incorporate their variable skills against armed antagonists who are set on the complete eradication of a culture that resists them.

Menchu's reality is harsh. Life is a struggle to survive. As if weaving a corte cloth with numerous threads, Menchu creates a tale of connection within her Quiche community. One of Menchu's main objectives is to maintain a cohesive Mayan culture. Menchu records her culture's past through memory, detailing rituals, customs, and traditions. She presents the Mayan culture with a sense of wonder and mystery. She speaks of candles lit to welcome the newborn children, of celebratory fiestas at weddings, of the importance of maize, and of respect for the elders of the community. The rituals she describes, alien to the Western mind, evoke a feeling of reverence and perhaps even envy in the reader.


In her narrative, Menchu dichotomizes the people of Guatemala into good and bad. The Indians are good; the ladinos (any Guatemalan who rejects Indian values) are bad. Her extreme polarity is the result of mistreatment by the ladinos she has worked for or encountered in her life. As an Indianist, she desires separation, but she has come to realize that unification is the only way to end repression. "In Guatemala," she says, "the division between Indians and ladinos has contributed to our situation" (167). Her father, Vincente, helped her see that "the justification for our struggle was to erase all the images imposed on us, all the cultural differences, and the ethnic barriers, so that we Indians might understand each other in spite of different ways of expressing our religion and beliefs" (169). She comes to understand that the barrier that divides Indians and ladinos have kept both groups oppressed by the wealthy elite who run the country (165).

The issue at stake for Menchu's community is the right of the indigenous people of Guatemala to live their lives the way that is best for them-free of oppression and exploitation. At times Menchu mentions other cultures only to condemn them for their evilness. Interestingly, she exhibits a double consciousness. She is very much both Mayan and citizen of the global world; the speaker of her native Quiche tongue as well as Spanish, the language of colonization. Her fear is that European culture will divide, desecrate, and destroy her culture, but she is learning to use what she can from an alien culture to help her people.

Despite her fears, Menchu recognizes the need for unity among the people of Guatemala. Like Martin Luther King she dreams of a better life for her people now, not in a heavenly utopia after death. This dream will require in Guatemala, as it did in the United States, a restructuring of society. It has been the history of civilization that such restructurings are bought with blood. Menchu describes in horrific detail the murders of her brother, father, and mother at the hands of the Guatemalan Army. Menchu protests the Guatemalan government's use of arms to coerce and terrorize the indigenous people of Guatemala. She views such action as an assault, not only on the physical lives of her community, but also on their values and their basic human right to exist as they want. Finally realizing the ineffectiveness of peaceful resistance, Menchu and her family take up arms and join resistance groups to combat the Army of Guatemala.

Due to the nature of the conflict, I, Rigoberta Menchu is not only a cultural text, but also a political one. In Paris representing the 31 January Front in 1982, Menchu gave her testimonio to garner aid and assistance for the oppressed people of Guatemala. The power of Menchu's voice is evident in the response her testimonio provoked. Her voice decries an unjust Civil War and asserts the right of a culture to exist within a larger, global community. As a person who survived a violent past, Menchu now looks to the future. She reminds the world of faith in progress and the eventual good life in a radically better future.

This is her voice:

My name is Rigoberta Menchu. I am twenty-three years old. This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book and I didn't learn it alone. I'd like to stress that it's not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people. It's hard for me to remember everything that's happened to me in my life since there have been many very bad times, but, yes, moments of joy as well. The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too: My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people. (1)

Other Voices:

"We won the Nobel for literature for a country that is illiterate, and now we win the Nobel for peace for a war that never ends."-Old Man in the Street 1992

"Guatemalans have lived a dark era . . ."-newspaper article

"The world is upside down if it is discussing now whether Rigoberta deserves the prize, when it should be debating whether the prize deserves her."-Eduardo Galeano

". . . it is true that her father was burned alive in the Spanish embassy, that she herself had to go into exile while very young, and that her brother was murdered by the military, ah! but not burned alive, just shot." -Manuel Vasquez Montalban

"I believe that there is still much that can be written about Guatemala, and that can be said about Ms. Menchu and her book, and I believe that it is a good and constructive thing." -Jorge Skinner-Klee

". . . it is hegemonic struggle itself that constitutes culture within the politics of a social democracy."-Homi Bhabha

"Reality cannot be recorded . . . all writing, all composition, is construction. We do not imitate the world, we construct versions of it. There is no mimesis, only poiesis. No recording. Only construction."-Robert Scholes

"Whether it happened so or not I do not know; but if you think about it you can see that it is true."-Black Elk Speaks


In thinking about dialogues between I, Rigoberta Menchu and Nine Guardians, by the Mexican novelist Rosario Castellanos, both books obviously describe the social paradigm called Power Over. I ran across that term in a book called Paradigm Shift by Denise Breton and Christopher Largent. Menchu presents a dichotomized or polarized rhetoric (we're good; they're bad) which only serves to potentially recreate the same power over paradigm she's opposing in reality. This is why, to me, Nine Guardians is more effective in its narrative strategy. Nine Guardians portrays the good and the bad without judgment, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions. In my reading of Menchu's text, people are good or evil, but in my reading of Nine Guardians, it is the social system (Power Over) that is evil--human beings are basically blindly playing out their assigned roles. Even if someone becomes aware and tries to change the system to Equal Power (the new Mexican President Lazario Cardenas in Nine Guardians) such change is always resisted and comes at a cost--think about our own struggle in the United States with equal rights for women and African Americans.

Looking at the two books from a literary perspective, Menchu uses direct suggestion to manipulate ther reader's emotions by interpreting events for the reader, while Nine Guardians uses indirect suggestion to create an emotional experience that allows the reader to interpret the events for himself. For example, the reader has to piece together what happened to the Indian on the Ferris Wheel, what he was thinking, feeling, why he went on it again. It's almost as if Menchu is judging an experience, while Nine Guardians recreates it.

To me, both books use different approaches to present the reality of oppression. Menchu is objectively personal addressing the reader openly in her own voice; Nine Guardians subjectively impersonal uses indirect means to reveal private truths of how an authoritarian social system operates.

I'm more concerned as a writer, to understand why the violence occurred; what invests the social system with its power; what can be done to dismantle it; and what can be done to create an equitable system for all. As a writer, I'm drawn more to the presentation in Nine Guardians because it is more balanced. The effect of a more balanced presentation is to draw the reader into the experience--whether the experience of the oppressed or the opporessors which allows the reader to see all aspects and perspectives. The reader can then participate in the emotional complexity of an authoritarian power structure in order to feel more empathetically and understand the great harm it has done to millions for millenia. Having this subjective experience may give us insight into how to spot Power Over systems and such awareness will help as we create solutions to successfully dismantle them. Using the same dichotomized, polarized hatred (us vs. them) of the oppressors is as detrimental as armed insurrection.

Nine Guardians and I, Rigoberta Menchu are examples of the difference between a testimonio and literature. Menchu reminds me uncomfortably of the testimonies I heard in my fundamentalist upbringing--emotional and manipulative and one sided. It makes me say, "Yes, but . . ." It's been my experience that testimony is a sort of propaganda of an exceptionally compelling kind--"This is my story and I'm sticking with it and no one can refute it." In contrast, Nine Guardians offers a dual way of seeing. The reader can see both sides presented evenly and can decide for himself where the evil lies. In its emotional complexity Nine Guardians helps us see that the ladinos, who have everything, lose their sons. The Indians, who have nothing, lose their sons as well. Power Over is a lose/lose system. Once enough people understand how an oppressive system operates and how devastating it is to everyone involved (including those who appear to prosper financially), then perhaps we can work together to create a shared power system.


About Rigoberta Menchu:

Rigoberta Menchu, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her on the 500th anniversary of the European colonization of the Americas, is a Guatemalan indigenous rights activist. A Quiche Indian woman, Menchu is the sixth of nine children born to Vincente Menchu and Juan Tum Cotoja. Her family struggled to earn a living working on coffee plantations on the south coast and then began farming in the village of Chimel in the highlands north of Uspantan. Menchu's brother and mother were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by the Guatemalan Army. Menchu's father died, along with 38 others, during the occupation of the Spanish Embassy in 1980. Menchu lived in exile in Mexico for twelve years. During her exile she traveled to Europe as a representative for the 31 January Popular Front. While in Paris in January 1982, Menchu met Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and tape recorded her life story. Debray transcribed and edited the 26 hours of tape. In 1983 Menchu's narrative was published in Spanish. Menchu has served on UN commissions, received honorary doctorates, and spoken in support of human rights in Europe and North America (http://www.indians.org/welker/menchu.htm).

About the text:
Written in the Latin American genre of the testimonio (oral autobiography), I, Rigoberta Menchu is a powerful narrative. In it one hears the voice of a woman who identifies passionately with a cause and who has gained the ear of the world. Menchu's voice is still speaking today as her country reorganizes into a fragile democracy for the betterment of the lives of all the Guatemalan people. This book was first published in Spanish in 1983 as My Name is Rigoberta Menchu, and This is How My Consciousness was Born. It was awarded the prize for best testimonial narrative for 1983 in the Casa de las Americas Annual Contest. In 1984 the book was published in France and England. The English translation sold 150,000 copies. It was later translated into German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, Danish, Norwegian, Russian and Arabic. The book was banned in Guatemala during the 1980's.

Politico-Historico Background:
Historians estimate that the Mayan population went from two million in 1520 to 135,000 in 1600 (Lovell and Lutz 174). Invaded in 1524 by Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, Guatemala still feels the effects of the conquest today. Guatemala is the largest country in Central America. Of the eleven million people living in Guatemala, half are Mayan or descended from the pre-Columbian civilization (Arias 3).

The conflict Menchu describes in her testimony began in 1954 when the U.S. backed the overthrow of the Guatemalan President Arbenz, a Socialist who had instigated an era of reform. A military dictatorship ushered in 36 years of Civil War. The conflict, which spanned the years 1962-96 left "100,000 people dead, 40,000 disappeared, a million exiles or refugees, 200,000 orphans, and a wandering legion of 100,000 widows" (Aznarez 109). The Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that the army committed 93% of the violence and that the guerrillas committed 3%. The report cited 83% of the victims as Mayans and 17% Ladinos (Warren 210-11).

The guerrilla movement arose to counteract the military dictatorship, which enforced unequal social conditions between the ruling elite and the indigenous people. Attracting many disaffected Mayans, the guerrilla movement (EGP) became a threat to the government. It was ruthlessly suppressed in the late 1970's by the army. Menchu, who joined the EGP, later became a spokesman for CUC (Committee of Peasant Unity. The impact of the publication of Menchu's testimony was to pressure the Guatemalan government to accept UN Sponsored Peace talks which eventually ended the conflict in 1996.
The military dictatorship gave way to a civilian government in1986. Postwar attempts to create an inclusive democratic government are on going. There is more indigenous representation in national affairs. However, President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, a conservative from FRG (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco) elected in 1999 is from a political party whose leader (General Rios Montt) was responsible for carrying out campaigns against Indians in the Civil War. (Pratt 46)




This website provides a briief description of Rigoberta Menchu and explains why she won the Nobel Peace Prize.


This website provides background and history about Menchu and also the Mayan culture. The website is about six pages long and the first page has many links to other topics discussing Mench, her cultur, and her people.


This website discusses the current situation in Guatemala in Spanish and English. It is a full text of the report that details the armed confrontation, rights abuses, and the process of reconcillation from 1960-1990.


This page, by Kate Doyle, explains CIA activity in Guatemala in 1954. This page has other links relating to propoganda and other ways that the CIA exploited the Guatemalan government and the people during this time.


This website has many links about Mayan society and culture.


This site provides mayan history from the pre-Columbian period.


This site has a close up map of Guatemala.


This site gives background informaiton on Guatemala including the geography, government, economy, foreign relations, religions, ethnic groups, education, and more.


Interview with Rigoberta Menchu from June 1996.


Teaching the I, Rigoberta Menchu Controversy

Rare is the indigenous woman who receives a Nobel Prize; rarer still that she should do so without controversy. Most controversies dissipate when both sides lose interest or weary of arguing-however, the controversy over Rigoberta Menchu's testimonio has been waged now for over a decade and shows no signs of abating. Any mention of Menchu will inevitably lead one to David Stoll, the anthropologist who accused Menchu of fabrications in the text of I, Rigoberta Menchu. Stoll first made his doubts known in 1990 at the Western Humanities Conference held at Berkeley; however it was not until the New York Times (December 1998) article that the general public became aware of Stoll's accusations against Menchu's testimony. Stoll published his book, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, the result of ten years of research on the Menchu text, in 1999.

Stoll's main allegation is that Menchu distorted facts, thus weakening her account and making it obvious that her testimony is a political propaganda piece for the Marxist guerilla cause. Stoll suggests that Menchu's voice was "colonized" by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray to further a flagging political. Behind the romantic picture of the poor Mayan peasant farmers bravely defending their land from the evil, greedy ladino landowners, Stoll reveals what he considers to be the real Menchus-guerrilla sympathizers who provoked the Guatemalan Army's arrival in Chimel and brought their own disaster on themselves.

Spinning off from the heart of the controversy, Stoll's challenge to the veracity of Menchu's story, are many unanswered questions for educators. Is this a political or a cultural text? What is the nature of the genre of testimonio? How should Menchu's text be read? Should the Menchu/Stoll controversy be taught in the classroom or ignored? Mary Louise Pratt says that "Scholars face an opportunity and a responsibility to work through the issues the controversy raises, which include a series of important epistemological, methodological, and ethical questions" (29-30).

As Pratt points out, privileged students are often made uncomfortable upon first encountering Menchu's testimony (39). Student reactions will vary but typically may fall into three categories-immediate empathy and acceptance of the text; rejection of the text; or cautious examination of the text. Introducing students to the Stoll/Menchu controversy can be done by having them read Stoll's text followed by Arturo Arias' examination of the controversy in The Rigoberta Menchu Controversy. Arias' book is divided into three sections-an introductory background of Menchu and the controversy; primary documents from newspaper articles, interviews, and official statements; and scholarly responses to the controversy analyzing its cultural, political, and historical implications.

Anyone contemplating teaching I, Rigoberta Menchu needs to be aware of the controversy, if, for no other reason, than to allow students to question and resist texts as an appropriate and productive activity which leads to the development of critical, analytical skills. Students need to be allowed to question texts without being made to feel politically incorrect, culturally insensitive or a social elitist. Stoll raises some serious questions that situate the teaching of Postcolonial texts as a political activity. Some students will accept the text as a true and powerful narrative detailing cultural repression, but others will view the text as a political ploy and experience its power as emotionally manipulative. A student may experience this reaction while still being empathetic to the plight of culturally oppressed people.

In our classrooms we must create an atmosphere that invites inquiry and encourages the critical examination of cultural texts, rather than enshrining them as sacred documents. We can also admit that the ideological values of other cultures are open to be questioned and resisted-such as the Taliban's burka and Muslim female circumcision rites. As educators, we can give our students permission and encouragement to interrogate any and all texts and develop the skills necessary to scrutinize the author's motives. We can model ways to question while upholding and respecting the author's right to his cultural values and opinions.

My interpretation of Stoll is that while he believes it is ethical to teach respect and empathy for colonized third world cultures, it is just as important ethically to help our students be able to "read" a text and understand its construction and creation of power. To ask, "How does this book create meaning?" "How does this book influence the reader?" In other words, a text like I, Rigoberta Menchu can be taught both sympathetically and critically. In fact, Stoll argues, it must be taught that way or else we fail our students.

My suggestions for teaching this text include pre-teaching. Familiarize students with the genre of testimonio-a Latin American genre in which the experience of one person may represent or symbolize the experience of a whole group of people. Familiarize students with Guatemalan geography. As Eduardo Galeano said, "Most American don't have a clue where this country, Guatemala, with its exotic name so hard to pronounce, is located" (100). Familiarize students with Guatemalan history so that they will understand the political causes behind Menchu's emotional rationalizations for insurgency. Also, familiarize students with the connection between language and the creation of ideology-specifically how this particular text creates an unconscious reification of indigena cultural values while encouraging students to harshly judge their own.

Suggested classroom activities could include a candid discussion of the Menchu/Stoll controversy and its implications. I also suggest introducing other texts about Mayan culture and the Civil War such as Montejo's Testimony: Death of a Guatemalan Village, Mario Payeras' Days of the Jungle and James Sexton's Son of Tecun Uman: A Mayan Indian Tells His Life Story. There are many activities suggested in Teaching and Testimony for teaching Menchu's story sans the controversy. Some include having students write their own testimonio, role playing, dramatic presentations of scenes, preparing food. One that particularly interested me was a teacher who had his class compare and contrast various reports from newspapers and magazines on the Spanish embassy take-over with Menchu's description. The idea is not just to read and discuss the book, but to actively engage students through pedagogical strategies to deepen their awareness and experience of cultural texts.

Whether or not to teach the controversy is a divided issue among educators. As a compositionist, I think it should be. I want to examine how Menchu's language of polarity creates and promotes the identity of victimization. I want to know if the polarization so evident in this text (us vs. them; good vs. evil) is accurate or exaggerated. I want to know if I am being manipulated to accept unthinkingly another person's political opinions (Marxism) disguised as romantic cultural rhetoric. I want my students to raise their own questions as they encounter this text. The last thing I want them to do this with this or any text is to passively accept it . If, after challenging and examining it, the student accepts it completely then well and good, but at least they had practice in comparing, contrasting, questioning, and analyzing-skills we need to encourage our students to develop. I agree with Victor D. Montejo who says, "I think the two books and many more on these issues should be consulted in order to see that history is reconstructed with multiple voices and not by a single voice or truth" (390).

It is inescapable that critical pedagogy of cultural texts, and especially this text, will be controversial. In "Her," Rosa Montero says, "It would seem that those who denounce Menchu, obsessed by small details, have lost sight of the big picture" (76). Those that unquestioningly defend Menchu are often guilty of the same thing or else have never read Stoll's book. Stoll is the first to admit that the "big picture"-thousands of Mayans murdered by the Guatemalan Army is accurate. What Stoll stubbornly directs attention to is something beyond the surface facts of cultural oppression (of which there is no dispute). Stoll's argument is about meaning-how it is created and maintained and passed on in the classroom. While Stoll believes it is ethical to teach respect and empathy for colonized third world cultures, he also believe it is just as important to help students be able to "read" a text and understand its construction and creation of power. To ask, "How does this book create meaning?" "How does this book influence the reader?" In other words, by introducing students to the Menchu/Stoll controversy we can teach cultural texts both sympathetically and critically. In fact, Stoll argues, they must be taught that way or else we fail as educators.


Arias, Arturo. "Rigoberta Menchu's History within the Guatemalan Context." The Rigoberta Menchu Controversy. Ed. Arturo Arias. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 3-28.

Aznarez, Juan Jesus. "Rigoberta Menchu Those Who Attack Me Humiliate the Victims." The Rigoberta Menchu Controversy. Ed. Arturo Arias. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 109-117.

Breton, Denise and Largent, Christopher. The Paradigm Conspiracy. Center City, Minnesota: Hazeldin, 1996.

Galeano, Eduardo. "Let's Shoot Rigoberta." The Rigoberta Menchu Controversy. Ed. Arturo Arias. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 99-102.

Lovell, George W. and Lutz, Christopher H. "The Primacy of Larger Truths." The Rigoberta Menchu Controversy. Ed. Arturo Arias. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 171-97.

Menchu, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchu An Indian Woman in Guatemala. London: Verso, 1983.

Montejo, Victor D. "Truth, Human Rights, and Representation." The Rigoberta Controversy. Ed. Arturo Arias. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 372-91.

Montero, Rosa. "Her." The Rigoberta Menchu Controversy. Ed. Arturo Arias. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 76-7.

Pratt, Mary Louise. "I, Rigoberta Menchu and the 'Culture Wars.'" The
Rigoberta Menchu Controversy.
Ed. Arturo Arias. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 29-48.

Stoll, David. Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. Boulder: Westview P, 1999.

Warren, Kay B. "Telling Truths." The Rigoberta Menchu Controversy. Ed. Arturo Arias. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 198-218.

Webb-Carey, Allen and Benz, Stephen, eds. Teaching and Testimony Rigoberta Menchu and the North American Classroom. New York: SUNY P, 1996.

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